Turkish literature
in translations into Czech

The LAF-panel of international translators from the Turkish in Frankfurt 2008
By Petr Kucera
There are only few Turkish literary texts translated into Czech over the last 50 years. With the exception of Nazim Hikmet whose communist activism made him attractive for the regime's propaganda (his plays had been translated mostly from Russian, not from the original) we have only a handfull of translations into Czech - including two novels by Yasar Kemal, one novel and a collection of short stories by Orhan Kemal, collected poems by Orhan Veli and Aziz Nesin's memoirs. Recently, Orhan Pamuk's major texts (My Name is Red, New Life, Istanbul, Snow [forthcoming]) have been translated into Czech.

This shortage has several reasons: 1. During the communist period, Turkish studies weren't supported by the regime and had not been taught at any Czech university for a long time.

2. Given the curricula of Turkish studies (in general, not only in the Czech Republic), that is far away from the literary-philological orientation of, lets say, Italian or German studies, many students opt for historical research or specialize in Ottoman studies.

3. Czech translators (especially from "Oriental languages") are extremely underpaid in comparison to other countries and they translate literary works only in their free time which makes a fast publication of fiction almost impossible. Until recently there was also a little interest on the part of publishers in Turkish literature. Nevertheless, this has changed significantly with Orhan Pamuk's Nobel Prize.

(Note: It might be interesting to note, that the situation used to be very different in Slovakia. During the 1970s and 1980s, there was a very prolific translator from Turkish who produced dozens of translations. With her retirement, however, she has no successor and the last novels by Orhan Pamuk, for instance, were translated from English into Slovak)

I Must be Myself:
Accompanying Orhan Pamuk

By Tuula Kojo

Translated by Jill G. Timbers

This text was originally published
in The ATA Chronicle, February 2007, pp. 26-29

The following is a translation of an
essay by Tuula Kojo, the Finnish translator
of Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk,
who won the 2006 Nobel Prize for
Literature. The essay first appeared
in a 2005 collection of writings by
Finnish literary translators about the
challenges and rewards of transferring
literature between worlds, Suom. huom.:
kirjoituksia kääntämisestä
Note: Essays about Translation].1

I feel confused every time
I first hold in my hands a brand new
book, hot off the press, that I have
translated into Finnish. I recognize the
author's name and my own, too, of
course, and yes, I guess that is how I
revised that phrase when the final
proofs were in front of me and the
hurry was great. True, that is no doubt
the text I produced, but why does it
nevertheless seem so curiously unfamiliar,
as if it had been done by someone
other than me?

My confusion can be traced in part
to the fact that the Finnish book is so
very fine and clean and fresh. The
Turkish original, which is closer to
me, is anything but. Turkish books are
almost without exception paperbacks,
often a bit shabby looking. Their
paper is porous and yellowish, and the
words crowd the pages till there is
barely room to breathe. And the
book's characteristic smell crowns it
all: a blend of cigarette smoke, air
pollution, and damp dust. That is the
kind of book I have thumbed through
as I worked. It has been dear and
familiar through and through to me. It
has been like a home, but it was
written by someone other than me.

My work as a literary translator
and I remain in some no-man's-land
between these books. There I have
traveled all about, groping my way
through the text, which bit by bit
reshaped itself from Turkish into
Finnish. Every book I translate is a
journey for me.

The Book Where It All Began

I read a book one day and my
whole life was changed. Even on
the first page I was so affected by
the book's intensity I felt my body
sever itself and pull away from the
chair where I sat reading the book
that lay before me on the table.2

So begins my first translation, The
New Life
. The book that turned my
life upside down, however, was an
earlier novel by Orhan Pamuk, The
White Castle,
which I read in 1992.

But first I think we ought to sweep
back through time to the early 1980s.
I was not supposed to become a literary
translator. I was studying all
sorts of fun things at the University of
Turku in Finland: culture, literature,
cinema, art. During the summers I
roamed about Europe by Interrail.
Through travel and studies I came to
know the Western countries, but it
wasn't enough. The world was much
more. I was curious and longed to
explore distant places, but as a student
on a tight budget I did not get farther
than Turkey.

I made my first trip to Turkey in the
summer of 1984, when I participated
in an international work camp in the
village of Sögütçük in central
Anatolia. I spoke no Turkish and knew
virtually nothing about Turkey. Along
with 20 other committed Europeans, I
dug ditches for water pipes.
Conditions were primitive, the sun
scorched, the village men cheered us
on from the shade, cigarettes dangling.
At the camp I started out my journal
this way: "I can't tell whether I like
this or not." A month later in Istanbul I
wrote: "I can't bear this sick country
any more, it's making me sick, too. If
I can only last till Finland." I decided I
would either figure out this sick
country that tried me so, or I would
never ever come back.
That hot summer marked the beginning
of my multifaceted relationship
with Turkey and the Turkish language.
For the next 10 years, in and around
my studies and work, Turkey was, for
me, often both a horror and a fun and
illuminating fascination: misery,
minarets, splendor, language classes,
bus trips all over the place, culture,
history, tea, all sorts of people, revolutions,
kindness, love, sultans, hate,
cats. I learned how to greet the elderly
with respect, I saw where Asia begins,
and I thought about why Turkey as a
country defies comprehension. I
wanted to understand.

I also read some Turkish literature,
which for a long time seemed
somehow distant, foreign, strange. It
did not really reach me. I nevertheless
did some sketchy translations and
stuffed them in a drawer. They later
formed the basis for an anthology on
Istanbul that I pulled together, and for
which Orhan Pamuk wrote his very
first short story.
Every book I translate
is a journey to me.

It was Pamuk's novel The White
that first stopped me short. I
was blown away. It felt as if the
book's tale of twin identities had been
written just for me. That's exactly
how my mind works, too; I also am
not always sure whether I am I or you.
It was hard to believe that the author
was really Turkish. I had to meet him.

I tracked down his phone number,
called him, interviewed him, and
wrote in my journal: "Really smart
guy. Terrific sense of humor." Shortly
after this, we met in Istanbul. I was
there to do literary research, but by
the end of our long conversation we
both agreed that I should begin to
translate his books into Finnish. At the
time, I had no idea what I was getting
myself into.

The Translator's Plunge

I stepped into the great unknown
when, having signed my first translation
contract with the publishing
house Tammi, I leapt confidently into
The New Life and forgot all about the
rest of the world. My translation was
completed in a state of bewitchment I
cannot even explain. I did not touch
my journal, because The New Life was
my journal. That is how it felt. I
wanted nothing more.

When I translated the part where
the protagonist sits watching beside
the bed of his feverish beloved, suddenly
I, too, ran a high fever. Nor did
I even find this strange. Instead, I
could not imagine how people could
choose to busy themselves at their
summer cottages when, for me, the
world's greatest happiness was translating
Orhan Pamuk's novel. When I
had no choice but to go outside to buy
coffee and cigarettes, the bustle of the
streets seemed unreal to me. My only
reality was the book.

The more I turned the pages, the
more a world that I could have
never imagined, or perceived, pervaded
my being and took hold of
my soul. I knew I was slowly
making progress on a road that had
no return.3

Not till the final meters of the
undertaking did I begin to feel frightened:
just what was I doing? My
journal from that period has this note:
"I wish I had never read the book that
changed my life totally." The wish
was soon forgotten. My translation
into Finnish reached completion with
the support of the world's best editor,
Vappu Orlov. My Finnish translation
of Pamuk's novel The New Life was
published in 1995, and I was left with
an emptiness as I held the unfamiliarseeming
book in my hand: my firstborn.
I thirsted for a new bewitchment
right away.

Genuine Work

Dear reader, I in no way wish to suggest
that translating is sheer rapture for
me. It is genuine work as well. But that
only became clear to me gradually.

In the fall of 1996, I took part in a
"master class" intended for beginning
literary translators that was organized
by the Finnish Association
of Translators and Interpreters. There,
many essentials involved in translating
literature became clear to me, and I
discovered I was not alone, even
though I was the only translator in
Finland translating Turkish literature.
My tutor Oili Suominen4 warmly
encouraged me to continue.

After the course, I wrote in my
journal: "I really feel like moving to
Helsinki and pouring myself 100%
into translating." But the future
seemed uncertain. One cannot live on
Pamuk alone.

I was residing in Stockholm and
translating The Black Book from
Turkish into Finnish. But I was living
in Istanbul and seeking the city's mystique.
Pamuk's narrative effusions,
metaphysical machinations, tormentor's
tears, buildings' dark
chasms, princes sprawled on divans,
sad souls in search of their identity,
and columnists who had lost their
memory left me wonderfully dizzy
with it all.
This was when I first heard the counterpoint to the
ringing in my ears. It promised to
save me from the madding crowd, to
show me the road back to my inner
voice, my own peace, my own happiness,
even my own smell. You
must be yourself, you must be yourself,
you must be yourself!5

I moved to Helsinki and wondered
whether translating literature could
become more than a moment's fling
for me. What if I were to take the fascination
with Turkey that had begun at
the work camp and turn it into a meal
ticket, a career. But it still took a long
time before I was able to hold my head
up and call myself a literary translator
by profession.

With this came much more as well.
I have given presentations and written
articles about Turkey. I have worked
in a Turkish bookstore, interpreted for
Turkish immigrants, toured refugee
camps in southeastern Turkey, and
written columns for Turkish newspapers.
I have subtitled Turkish television
programs and translated lovers'
legal certificates. I have shouted to
doubters at the top of my lungs that
Turkey is definitely no boondocks!

I have found myself serving as a
cultural intermediary and as an expert
on Turkey of whom all sorts of questions
are asked: What language is
spoken in Turkey? Are Turks Arabs?
Why are the Kurds being repressed?
Will Turkey join the European Union?
Does it snow in Istanbul?

With their questions, people have
taught me, in turn. I have shaped a
mental image of the readers of my
translations. Aha, I need to translate
this sentence this way so my readers
will picture it correctly. Indeed, customs,
smells, and figures of speech
that are perfectly obvious to me and to
Turks may be like Greek to my
Finnish readers. Where we would say
"I take part" and an American might
offer condolences, the Turk would
say, "May your head remain healthy."

At every opportunity I have
encouraged people to pick up
Pamuk's books. Discover a different
Turkey! Whenever anyone asks me
which of Pamuk's novels I think is his
best, I answer with the one I am translating
at the time.


Every night a sorrow overwhelms
me, a misery descends upon me.
Oh, my brothers, my dear brothers,
we're being poisoned, we're rotting,
dying, we're exhausting ourselves
as we live, we've sunk up to
our necks in misery...6

My back had started to ache even
before I began translating Pamuk's My
Name is Red
, which, along with much
else, depicts Enishte Effendi's great
torment: "Withstanding this boundless
suffering was so difficult that a portion
of my mind reacted - as if this were its
only option - by forgetting the agony
and seeking a gentle sleep."7

I had just recovered from the
insomnia and paramnesia I had caught
from the columnist of The Black Book.
I clung to rituals more tightly than
ever, as I believed them to be a vital
part of my work: that coffee cup has
to be placed precisely like that,
exactly there, or I will make a mistake.
To make my Finnish translation
sound like Pamuk, I read both the
Turkish and the Finnish out loud time
and time again. And secretly I cursed
my author, who seemed to have gotten
me completely in his power. I had
become a slave. If his novel's hero
suffered, I, too, had to suffer.

My journals make for grim reading:
"I am desperate. Can I keep this up?
Will my health withstand it? Will this
never end? Terrible shooting pains
in my chest and shoulders. I am
tired, I am frightened."

I will not continue moaning, dear
reader, I will not disclose the depths
in which I have wallowed, for what I
bear guilt, of what I am ashamed, or
whom I have betrayed. But I do want
to tell you that after a certain point, I
firmly resolved to kill off my author.

I suppose in a way I did kill him,
too. But when once again we met and
talked things through, my murder
resolve was forgotten, and I had a
vague recollection of happiness. For it
is happiness that the heroes of
Pamuk's novels seek, and some even
find it, momentarily.

I, too, sought happiness as I translated
the novel Snow from Turkish
into Finnish. I, too, like the book's
hero, visited Kars on the threshold of
the November 2002 elections. As I
write, the winner of those elections is
trying to pilot Turkey into the
European Union. The beauty, poverty,
and sadness of Turkey's northeast
corner moved me, too, to tears. And I,
too, had to answer the question: What
do Europeans think of the Turks?
If the Europeans are right and our
only future and only hope is to be
more like them, it's foolish to
waste time talking about what
makes us who we are.8

Memories and the City

Literary translation demands
much: precision, humility, patience,
general knowledge, empathy, and who
knows what all. Insufficiency is a
familiar feeling. I would like to say a
word of warning to those considering
a career as a literary translator, but I
cannot decide what to say.

Except, perhaps, that translating
literature also gives you a great deal.
As I sit at my desk now and page
through my translations and my journals
and try to take inventory of my
years with the Turkish language, I
nearly burst with the memories. O
Turkey, what brew have you steeped
me in? O Istanbul, city where I have
enjoyed innumerable glasses of tea in
the company of gentlemen. O
Istanbul: Memories and the City! It is
you I have translated in the grip of
great happiness and guilt.

I would like very much to open a
clean page of my journal and write: "I
would not trade any of it for

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